We tell ourselves that these are the attributes of winners: perseverance, resilience, fighting the good fight, pushing beyond our limits.

We don’t like quitters.

We don’t want to be a quitter.

We disparage the quitter as weak, uncommitted, cowardly or possibly lazy. We assume the quitter lacks mental or physical toughness, and is less deserving of our respect. We use the term “quitting” in all sorts of scenarios – leaving jobs, terminating marriages, abandoning personal goals or turning our backs on the expectations of others.

Some quit too soon, and others too often. But is quitting always a bad thing? What if we choose a more precise term, depending on the situation?

In a recent column on Huffington Post, psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson writes of quitting a jobShe relates a story from her own life when she quit a good job because the demands of motherhood and her profession were overwhelming. She struggled with her decision (as we might expect), and didn’t want to be seen as a quitter.

Dr. Halvorson points out:

… I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people give up too soon when trying to reach a goal. But the truth is, a lot of us suffer from the opposite problem: not knowing when, or how, to quit.

She elaborates – and here I recognize myself, though I hate to admit it.

We take on too many projects and commitments, and end up turning in 10 mediocre jobs instead of one or two stellar performances.

Quitting, By the Book

Isn’t the notion of quitting couched in cultural judgment? Doesn’t it depend upon what we’re walking away from – and the reasons why?

When we look at the definition of quitting, we find:

to stop, cease, or discontinue; leave, resign; to stop trying or struggling, to give up or accept defeat

Aren’t there critical distinctions between leaving a situation, leaving prematurely, giving up, ceasing to struggle, and even accepting defeat?

Would You Quit Your Job?

When talking about quitting a job, circumstances are enormously important.

If you’re 30 with no children to care for, the consequences are not as burdensome as for the single parent breadwinner of 45. If you work in an industry where jobs are scarce, quitting may not be an option under any circumstances, or so you tell yourself.

Naturally, your savings, your health and your support systems are critical to staying or going.

Then again, leaving a job in which you are sick from stress or physical demands may become a matter of survival. Perhaps we ought to replace the use of “quitting” with “leaving a terrible and unhealthy situation,” which you follow up with a period of refocusing, retraining, or repositioning for something else.

But what if providing food and heat and a roof overhead is also a matter of survival?

Quitting a Marriage

When we talk about relationships, the notion of quitting gets very prickly, especially if we’re discussing marriage, and more so if we’re talking about marriage with children.

Let’s get real. “Divorced” is a strike against you, despite how common it is these days. Society deems divorce a failure, with the reasons for divorce allowing more or less justification.

When it comes to marriage, some believe that personal happiness trumps trying; they may “stick it out” through bad times for a year or possibly two. (We won’t discuss Kim Kardashian’s 72-day stint in Marriage Number 2; I wouldn’t presume to know how to categorize that!)

Others take the position that marriage is a lifelong commitment no matter what, and short of abuse (of various sorts), you make your bed, etcetera, etcetera. 

Quitting and Admitting

What about admitting defeat in order to save yourself – or your children?

In a legal matter that drags on for years, if the process is financially devastating, places obstacles to parenting, shreds your health, and makes holding a job difficult – at some point, isn’t the better part of valor to walk away?

Is it better to admit defeat and exit alive, rather than going down in flames? Even so, how do you manage the conflicting voices in your own head that tell you to fight on, and those that recognize it’s a lost cause?

What about deciding to run a marathon and realizing, despite extraordinary efforts put into training, your body will not hold up for 26 miles? Is that quitting, or would resetting goals for a half marathon show good sense and respect for your longer term health?

What about recognizing that we all bite off more than we can (reasonably) chew, and eventually it catches up with us? Maybe it’s an untenable work situation, commitments we’ve taken on that are taking us over. We’ve lost sight of choices, of priorities, of costs and compensations. Perhaps we find ourselves in a battle of wills – with ourselves.

Dr. Halvorson writes:

To be sure, quitting a job may not be an option for many, but most of us surround ourselves with plenty of unofficial projects that may not be worth pursuing…

Blindly Persisting

Saturday, while running errands and before writing, I was hit with a sudden migraine that impaired my vision in one eye. I got myself home as quickly as possible, covered one side of my face with a cold cloth, and attempted to craft a few paragraphs.

The screen was blurring, my temples were pounding, and two hours into starting and stopping I closed my laptop and put it away.  The following day, there was still residual pain and blurring.

I did not write.

I felt uncomfortable but worse – defeated. And then I thought about the article on quitters, our tendency to take on too much for too long, and I saw myself in the entirety of my marriage as well as the years since divorce. I recognize my patterns of pushing the limits on all fronts, juggling everything and expecting to do so impeccably (which is not the case). There are priorities; sometimes we lose sight of them – literally as well as figuratively.

Rest, Reprieves, and Quitter-Envy

There is quitting and there is stopping – for a rest, to refuel, to refocus. Quitting and stopping are not the same.

There is accepting a temporary pause for valid reasons; that is a reprieve, not surrender.

There is accepting defeat after putting up a fight, but knowing that to persist is ego, or hubris, or self-destruction.

There are quitters with all the negative connotations the word communicates, but I believe we should save that label for those who do not try, those who do not consider others in their actions, those who are unwilling to reassess priorities. And even then, I don’t presume to know their experience from the inside; it’s not my place to label or judge, though I know I judge myself too harshly.

It’s only natural to be envious of those who have the option to quit, but isn’t it because we wish we had that option ourselves? How many of us are doing too much, and wish we could let something go – and rest?

  • Do you take responsibility for too many people, too many projects, too much of the familial burden – emotionally, logistically, financially?
  • Do you “stick” too long in tough situations?
  • Do some circumstances require near heroic efforts before you walk away, like marriage, perhaps?
  • Have you gotten better at knowing when to pause for a breath, when to walk away,  and when to accept defeat – or the lesser of two evils?

© D. A. Wolf



  1. says

    I used to be one who took on so many projects (finished them) and recognized that saying no was a valuable option. Now at the age of 63 I easily can say no and enjoy it. As a young Mom and working, when my kids turned 5 and 7, I found myself overloaded. The good thing was my job allowed some flexibility and that was a good thing. Mostly, I was the one who picked the kids up from their activities and had others get them there. After taking on major projects for years I now relax and let others do it. I enjoy watching instead of participating now. With my grand kids I have become a part of their lives but can tell them no and stick with it and not feel guilty as I did with my own kids if I didn’t do it all. With marriage it was easy to leave and say enough is enough. I was ready. I think that it is the key. There came a time when it was okay for people not to like me, I relished it and was happy I took a stand. Growth and age helped me realized I could do whatever I wanted. Be single, say no and enjoy the beauty in the choices. Something I didn’t know in my younger years. Great article BLW.

  2. says

    I have become better at saying “No” when that is what needs to be done. While still saying “Yes” with enthusiasm at other times. Discernment.

    Sorry to hear of the health issue and am hoping it is fully passed. Feel fine to give yourself a break. By your online absence, I was hoping you had had one of those great weekends where you come back all smiley and wobbly-legs. (Sometimes for us, of course, that may just mean particularly tough backpacking.)

  3. says

    I see people give up a fight the moment it stops bringing them joy, as though the point of life is to squeeze as much joy as one possibly can with every waking moment. People quit friends all the time when those friends stop being fun and start requiring more work, start challenging them, start telling them the truth they’re unprepared to hear. I think commitment in our culture is reserved for a small handful of things, and even those things are are becoming more and more seldom seen through to the end. While I believe that one must choose one’s battles, I’m afraid that our short attention span or our often half-hearted approach to commitment makes quitters of many of us.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      @Belinda, Unfortunately, I think we see many examples of the short attention span and “move on the next” mentality, without really putting in effort to see things through. The challenge seems to be to find a happy medium, or perhaps to do a better job of imparting values and judgment that help people – as Paul says – discern when to hold and when to go.

      @April, As you say, we’re so quick to label. (And why?)

      @Denise, That’s an interesting point about the fear of quitting. But it’s rational fear, most of the time. It’s fear of the unknown, isn’t it? Sometimes leaving / stopping / surrendering is the braver choice, contrary to what others may think.

  4. says

    It’s like I say about the Seven (supposedly) Deadly Sins. Sometimes, anger can be good. Sometimes, letting go can be good. We are so quick to label things as good or bad, when usually, they are grey.

  5. says

    Hi BLW. This post absolutely intrigues me. I love your thought that the word quitting (or quit) should have many understanding and definitions. As for me, a recovering perfectionist, the thought of quitting (and the ensuing thoughts that others might have about my quitting) is not pleasant. But I’ve realized that my fear of quitting something began to usurp my willingness to try something out. So, I’ve decided to give quitting a try. I try to do it respectably–and it feels really damn good. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  6. says

    There are times to let go and times to persevere. Knowing the difference makes you a wise soul. I like April’s comment above too. We are so quick to label and judge and, as in most things, there can be good and bad all rolled into one.

  7. says

    Don’t want to read too much into cartoons, but if I could add a panel to Coach, I’d say “Stand up for what you believe in — don’t be a quitter.” That’s another story, and sometimes coaches (or wives) may tell that truth a bit too bluntly, but it’s still a truth. Maybe I just have an unusual wife (yes) and past track coaches (also, yes). But can’t put four panels into any particular context (excepting that which the reader may bring to it from his/her own experience).

    When do we need to buck up and not be victims? Discernment.

  8. says

    This one hits me hard. Returning to work three weeks ago after my second maternity leave has been hard. We’ve always planned that I would work after our second child, but not after the third. We’re looking at about two years before number three comes along and for the first time that horizon is looking awfully far away. I’m not ready to quit my job now. But the thought of it – and the myriad side effects such a decision would bring – has entered my mind a few times lately…

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Adding children to the mix changes everything Gale, doesn’t it. So much joy, and so much more work, coordination, and compromise than we realize.

  9. Robert says

    Unspoken in today’s posting is the idea that declaration of whether we have “quit” is judged in the eyes of others – an imagined court of social opinion. As long as we maintain the idea that we must play to others to satisfy our feelings of worthiness, we will always be torn in multiple directions.

    I find that the only way to keep myself sane is to listen only to myself. I don’t think I’m alone in judging myself at least as harshly as anyone else would, and doing on ongoing internal assessment as to how to allocate my time. I zig-zag between the boundaries of too much of this, too little of that., with not much down-the-middle. Eventually, push comes to shove – per a quote I heard recently “An unstoppable bullet hits an immovable wall”, and you are left with a choice that is slightly less unpalatable than the rest, which is the one you take. When things have reached that point, anyone else’s opinion is laughably irrelevant.

    In truth, I assume most of us live our lives that way. We only tell ourselves we care what other people think, but at root we minute-to-minute do what we have to do, the way we do, because it is our only way forward.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Robert, the issue of self-worth is huge is so far-reaching. I agree that how others view us influences our actions – sometimes too much. Labels like “quitter” certainly don’t help, and that’s just one example.

      As to your quote about the unstoppable bullet, I guess that’s what I think of as the lesser of two evils – those wrenching decisions that no one should have to make – health versus food on the table, 2 jobs to pay the rent versus time with kids, and so on.

  10. says

    I can’t help but think you wrote this for me. (That’s not egocentric, right?)

    When I had to put my two weeks notice in, for a job that I had grown to love, I felt like, well, a loser. How could I abandon my families and colleagues? These feelings only intensified when I had to quit immediately after a weekend in which I couldn’t move from my bed.

    Yet I couldn’t lose sight that I was making the right decision. There were more things at play than just the pregnancy-induced sickness–extra hours with the same pay, little or no support from my supervisor, catty and gossipy co-workers that made my life hell at work–but, ultimately, the pregnancy was the impetus for change. I liked my job, and felt I was good at it, yet it’s hard to handle difficulties when I could barely keep my head out of the toilet.

    And then, shortly after, my husband withdrew from medical school. He had similar feelings as me, what would people think of him for quitting? How could he quit such a prestigious field? But he had to put his emotional needs over what he and others may think about the decision.

    I really like your idea that we should soften the vocabulary more because quitting isn’t “quitting,” it’s realizing that maybe things in life need to take a different direction.

  11. Alain says

    First of all, BLW, j’espère que vous allez mieux! Your body spoke and it certainly was a wise choice (as if there was one!) to listen and get much needed rest.

    Before my divorce, I used to draw for a living, and it was a lifelong dream come true. I now have an office job so to have enough time to take care of my kids (we worked out a solution we each have half custody). Those issues of being a quitter (dreams, marriage, though I did not walk out), I had to ponder and just like Robert, I think I can be as hard as anybody when judging myself.

    Post divorce, I had to achieve again, just to make sure I wasn’t a quitter. Had to be good at new job, finish my first marathon, build a great new place for the kids, etc…

    Recently, after lots of reading from various sources (Robert and Lisa Firestone who deal with the critical inner voice: http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/robert-firestone-phd and http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters ;
    Miguel Ruiz who speaks of the “Voice of knowledge” : http://www.toltecspirit.com/
    and Eckhart Tolle who deals with the ego : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eckhart_Tolle) , I have found that a lot of authors deal with very similar concepts and point to the question : why judge yourself (and others) at all? And I’m not advocating not to strive, which may sound paradoxical.

    Just trying to answer that simple question, at least in my case, has far reaching ramifications I’ve found, including when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

    Prenez soin de vous!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Such interesting observations about the “post-divorce self” and a need to prove things (to oneself). You’ve given me much to ponder, Alain. Je vous remercie.

  12. says

    I wonder, how often we define things as persistence or quitting when really it is a choice. I believe strongly in following through on our commitments. I hate to see how fickle our world has become (in love and so many things). But discretion is the better part of valor. And leaving something that keeps you from your truest priorities is not quitting but choosing what is best. How we spend our time and who we spend it with defines our lives.
    Of course, no one else can see into our lives or understand why certain jobs or choices are so very wrong (or right).

  13. says

    I remember finally deciding to quit writing screenplays after a long string of bad luck culminating with the death of a financier that felt like the universe saying, “when are you finally going to get it through your head that this isn’t going to happen for you right now?” I felt relief to admit defeat… and yet still at the back of my mind pulses the notion that reversals and turn-arounds remain possible. What I’ve certainly quit is writing to try to please someone else, as other people don’t seem to know what they truly want anyway (other than to magically feel better). I think quitting might be better thought of as relinquishing, and the one thing I wouldn’t want to relinquish is loving—that would be like quitting the essence of being alive.

    All Good Wishes to you BLW to relinquish what you no longer need but to never quit loving and authentically giving to those you love from your soul.

  14. says

    When I was in my late twenties, I landed a legal job that had me on the verge of panic every night for 11 months. The female boss made her mission to be very nasty to the upcoming associates. My stress levels were at an all time high and I knew I needed to quit. But because I associated quitting with failure, there was much hesitation on my part. After many sleepless nights, I walked into the partner’s office and informed him that I was quitting, effectively immediately. It is the best decision I made for my legal career. And I’ve never questioned quitting that job. Important subject and great discussion. Thanks BLW.

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